In search of solutions to a pervasive national problem, a new network of relatively well-off school districts is taking aim at the academic performance gap between racial and ethnic groups.
| The following districts are taking part in the newly formed Minority Student Achievement Network: |
The 14 districts, mostly in suburbs and small cities, have banded together to find answers to lagging performance by blacks and Hispanics. Though many of the communities have sizable numbers of such minority students from middle-class families, the students typically post lower grades and test scores than white or Asian-American youngsters from comparable backgrounds.
“Each of us is ready to acknowledge that we haven’t been able to address the issue by ourselves,” said Allan Alson, the superintendent of the Evanston Township High School system, the suburban Chicago district that co-hosted a three-day conference launching the network late last month. “Maybe by helping each other, we can find some answers.”
The Minority Student Achievement Network will aim to create programs that attack underachievement among non-Asian minorities and research projects that identify causes of the performance gap.
Other objectives will be to share information, provide staff development, and serve as a national clearinghouse on strategies to improve achievement by blacks and Hispanics. Several of the member districts serve large or well-known universities, including Amherst, Mass.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Berkeley, Calif.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Madison, Wis.
During the network’s inaugural conference June 27-29 at Northwestern University in Evanston, a retired Yale University professor told participants that they were uniquely positioned to address unequal achievement among racial and ethnic groups.
“If those in relatively stable and affluent communities serving kids where all the odds are not against them can’t crack the problem, there are many who will say it can’t be done because the kids are not capable,” said Edmund W. Gordon, a professor emeritus of psychology and a former chairman of African-American studies at Yale, who delivered the keynote address.
A Growing National Concern
The network’s debut comes at a time when closing the achievement gap has emerged as a priority in states and districts across the country. San Francisco, Seattle, Tucson, Ariz., and the states of Texas and North Carolina are among those that have launched high-profile efforts to eliminate such disparities.
Those efforts have been fueled by national statistics suggesting that blacks and Hispanics have been giving up ground academically during the past decade. In a recent publication highlighting the problem, the Washington-based Education Trust reported that in both reading and mathematics, test scores among African-American and Hispanic 17-year-olds were on a par with those of typical white 13-year-olds.
“Many African-American and Latino students are trapped at levels of achievement that leave them terribly unprepared either for the next level of education or the world of work,” said the trust’s 1998 state and national data book.
Explanations for the problem vary. In addition to the socioeconomic differences among racial and ethnic groups, experts say that teacher expectations, peer culture, student motivation, parental involvement, and other factors all have an effect. Similarly, few analysts say that a single strategy for solving the problem will suffice.
Districts in the network typically have growing proportions of nonwhite enrollment, as well as significant levels of student poverty despite their communities’ relative affluence. In Mr. Alson’s district, 42 percent of students are black, a total of 54 percent are nonwhite, and about 30 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
“For a variety of reasons, it can be embarrassing for us school people to reveal the disparities that exist,” said Mr. Alson, who was instrumental in creating the network. “A network offers the opportunity to openly discuss the results we’re seeing, and the strategies we’re employing to try to make a difference.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as Network of 14 Districts To Focus on Achievement Gap